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Cello Perspectives: A One on One with David Finckel

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To celebrate Cello Month on WFMT, we’ve invited a number of professional players to consider a set of questions, expecting—and hoping for—a range of answers to widen our perspective on the instrument. Cellists are given the option to edit or skip questions. Our first participant is one of America’s top cellists, David Finckel.

One of the founders of the Emerson String Quartet, David Finckel and his three colleagues expanded the world of quartet-playing, becoming one of the most celebrated quartets of all time. The Emerson’s recordings of the quartet repertoire are favorites among many collectors. Today David Finckel tours as a soloist and serves as co-artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Music@Menlo; he also teaches at Juilliard and runs his own record label ArtistLed with wife Wu Han.

How old were you when you started to play? Why did you choose the cello? What made you decide to become a musician?
I was ten, and had been studying the piano for five years. It was time for me to learn an instrument that I could play in orchestra, and my parents said: “Why don’t you take up the cello like your great-uncle Alden, your uncle George, and your two cousins Mike and Chris?” That was all I needed to hear.
 

Can you name a piece or two of core repertoire that requires extra prep time? What specifically makes it challenging for players?
Certainly there are pieces that have special needs that take extra time. Both Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata and the Bach 6th Suite fall into that category as they were composed for instruments with 6 and 5 strings respectively, instead of the cello’s normal 4. We have to make them sound not impossible and awkward, like they were indeed composed for the cello we use, and that takes abnormal fingering and bowing strategies that are usually outside our realm of normal playing.
 

Do you have a maintenance schedule for the cello? What has to be done to keep it in top working order? Is the instrument sensitive to conditions and how do you adjust?
I adjust my own sound post with a limited degree of sophistication, which means that all I do is make it a little tighter or a little looser depending on the climate.  And I only need to do it if there is an extreme climate change. Within the last three weeks I’ve gone from the Caribbean to New York to Tokyo and Taipei and back, and with the incredible cold in the northeast vs. the Caribbean steaminess, I’ve had to move the post. But it’s gotten a bit out of whack, beyond where I can handle it, so when I finally return home I’ll be taking the cello back to its maker, Sam Zygmuntowicz, for a really professional adjustment. Beyond that, I keep the cello clean and that’s all I have to do to keep it running well. It’s a great cello, finished in 1993, and is extremely stable under all but the most trying conditions.
 

What’s your favorite cello recording? Why?
All of my favorite cello recordings, with only a few exceptions, are by Rostropovich. He was in a class by himself, and what he left us is beyond compare. I still receive the most inspired lesson from him every time I hear him on record or video, and I’m so thankful that we cellists have such a rich resource for learning.
 

If you could go back in time to advise composers about the cello, who would you talk to, and what would you suggest?
Many composers haven’t had sufficient knowledge of instrumental techniques to compose well, especially in our time. Back in the day, composers like Mozart and Mendelssohn and Dvorak played both keyboard and stringed instruments with a high degree of skill. Of course there have been thousands like them who played many instruments but lacked their creative skill. Even those who knew their stuff – Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky for example – enlisted the help of string mentors such as Joachim, Fitzenhagen and Davidoff to help them with passagework. It’s different today. There are a lot of composers simply writing on computer programs who don’t seem to have the foggiest knowledge of how to make real instruments work, and it’s often very frustrating for performers.
 

How do you teach fingerings to young cellists? What is it about the instrument’s design that makes fingerings so tricky to players?
Fingerings are incredibly important, all the time. There is  hardly a way to save a bad fingering from simply sounding bad and unmusical, and I’m not just talking about technical passages. I’m talking about the simplest melodies that one must play as beautifully as possible, especially when the bar has been set very high. And it’s nowhere more true than in chamber music, which usually does not benefit from detailed teaching the way solo music does. I’d say about a third of my chamber music time is spent on fingerings and bowings – ask any of my students. When working through a piece for the first time with a student, I generally insist that they show up with a clean and un-edited-by-anyone score, and then we go through the work note-by-note until they discover for themselves, through trial and error, the fingerings and bowings that sound best. There’s no other way for them to learn how to do it themselves that I know of.
 

When two cellists get together, what are some of the peculiarities of the instrument that they talk about? Do you have any funny stories?
We talk about our auxiliary equipment like endpins, tuning pegs and tailpiece tuners, cases, bridges, even bows. Theres’s not much else you can switch out. If someone is complaining about their cello all the time, I simply tell them to get a new one. Players should be happy with their instruments and not spend a lot of time fooling with them. The instrument should serve the music well by allowing the performer to do what he or she needs.
 

Do you find playing the cello gets easier, and that you can practice less? Is there a piece of music you play that helps you keep up your technique?
Absolutely the opposite. I now practice as much as I did when I was in my teens, just learning the repertoire. I don’t feel I’ve lost ability yet my standards, not to mention the level audiences expect from me, have gone way up. But it’s also the joy of practicing, not just the cello but music itself, that draws me to the practice room – wherever that might be these days – for some of the most precious time of my life as a musician.

 

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